Deborah Katchko-Gray
Pioneer woman cantor, artist and Bubbie.

A WOW Choir! From Dream to Reality

As Anat Hoffman was praying at the Kotel, hot coffee was thrown at her back. An assault during prayer- heart breaking.
My gift to Anat Hoffman- a coffee colored handcrafted tallit using Swedish Weaving.

Women’s voices in prayer is not unusual in most American egalitarian synagogues. More than half of the Reform and Conservative cantorial schools are made up of women, including professors and cantorial coaches. Women cantors are the norm, and it is a well-known story many of us have heard from little children when they encounter a male cantor, “I didn’t know men could be cantors!” I heard that in l984 when I was a young conservative cantor, and I know it has been repeated dozens of times to many colleagues over the years.

So, what could be so new about women’s voices in prayer these days?
The Women of the Wall in Jerusalem have been holding monthly Rosh Chodesh services since l988; when an international Jewish Feminist Conference was held in Jerusalem, and Rivka Haut invited participants for “gratitude prayer for the wellbeing of the State of Israel” at the Western Wall. Sixty women from a range of movements participated.

The Women of the Wall is a diverse group with a hybrid mode of worship inclusive of traditional and contemporary movements. Wearing a tallit, tefillin and reading from the Torah are part of the culture and tradition, which sadly has been met with violent protests and assault on occasion from ultra-orthodox worshippers.

It is an act of assault that drew me to the Women of the Wall, when I saw a coffee-stained tallit on the director, Anat Hoffman as she was praying at the Kotel with her community. I was shocked that someone who disagreed with hearing a woman’s voice in prayer would violently assault a woman in prayer, with hot coffee on their back. I am a fourth-generation cantor, but I’m also a Swedish weaving tallit maker. I love making and creating unique prayer shawls, so my first instinct was to send Anat a coffee-colored tallit that would hopefully never be desecrated by violence. Her note to me of gratitude was so beautiful I invited her to speak by zoom to my congregation’s Sisterhood. She was so amazing; I shared my enthusiasm with a few cantorial friends who suggested she speak to the Women Cantors’ Network. What a perfect shidduch/match! Anat spoke to us by zoom and challenged us to help her create a choir for Women of the Wall, to enhance the prayer and bring more beauty and light into their services.

As founder of the Women Cantors’ Network, I knew this was a challenge we were made for- and I’m proud of our board for offering a major investment in this dream. I’m thrilled to announce we are on our way!

I found the most perfect choir director for this- Dr. Tanya Sermer, who is a lecturer at the Hebrew University and the Artistic Producer of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. Oratorio is the largest independent choral organization in Israel. She has 6 conductors and runs 6 separate choirs, with about 150 singers in total. Tanya is looking for women volunteers for this brand-new WoW choir. Dedication to the cause of Women of the Wall and a singing voice is all that’s needed.

After listening to the music of a typical service, I selected music to be arranged by the incredible music producer/composer/arranger Beth Styles. The music is beautifully done, so a choir will enhance the music, while still being inviting for all to join in prayer. Beth and I recorded it as a teaching tool, so singers can learn the music on their own. If you know of any singers in Jerusalem who are supportive of Women of the Wall and love to sing, please contact Women of the Wall and they will put you in touch with Tanya. If anyone would love to help support this exciting project, please donate to Women of the Wall for the WOW Choir.
It is a dream to help give the singers a stipend and travel reimbursement.

Hiddur Mitzvah- enhancing the mitzvah- bringing more beauty, light, song into our rituals. A dream of a WOW Choir is closer to reality. Please join us and support this wonderful effort if you believe women’s voices have a place in prayer. If the idea of gorgeous harmony coming from the women’s section of the Kotel strikes a chord in you, please join our effort by supporting the WOW Choir. All I can say is WOW! A dream is becoming a reality!

About the Author
Fourth generation cantor, second woman to serve a traditional synagogue and founder of the Women Cantors' Network. Deborah studied with Elie Wiesel z"l and continues to be inspired by his teachings. First recipient of the Debbie Friedman Miriam Award. A cantor in Ridgefield, CT since 1999, cellist, tallit Swedish weaving embroiderer, mother of 6, grandmother of five. Wife and friend.
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